The first time I met artist Virginia Fifield — during an art show opening at ArtServe, where she was on the board and I was working as a marketing consultant — I asked what she did. The elegant brunet merely responded, "Oh, I do drawings of animals."
Several months later, I saw her work for the first time at the Boca Museum of Art. Fifield was standing in front of her large-scale charcoal piece The Bird in the Hand. It was an exquisite drawing. Wrinkles on the hand were lifelike. So were the birds' feathers, each follicle recorded with a meticulous stroke of charcoal. My mind was blown.
Beauty, grace, and an intense artistic strength all come through in Fifield's works, which are on display at the Art and Culture Center of Hollywood in the show "Them/US." When it opened Friday, January 24, art fans flocked to her side. She beamed and blushed throughout the night. "She's so modest and lovely," I overheard.
Coinciding with Fifield's exhibit are three solo shows by Aline Kominksy-Crumb, Johnny Laderer, and Kristin Thiele. Each artist has a dedicated room of works, and in the gallery's largest room, 120 or so donated works are mounted for Abracadabra, a $375-per-ticket March 14 fundraiser where every guest will take home an artwork.
The Saturday following the show's opening, Fifield invited me to her Hollywood studio for a chat and some coffee. She was in the middle of working on a horse drawing for Opera Gallery, located in the Bal Harbour Shops, which sells her pieces for $4,000 to $20,000.
The 58-year-old Fifield earned a BFA from York University in her native Toronto. "I always found I had to do something else to support my art habit," she says. "So I started working as a framer while I was still in college. It's a good skill to have." Framing as a profession frustrated her and sapped her creativity. She studied architecture and worked in urban planning for several years as an assistant designer.
Fifield's earliest pieces were large canvases, eight by ten feet, mostly abstractions. That changed after she met her husband, who was from Florida, and they moved south and had a son, whom they often took camping.
Around 1991, she fell in love with the Everglades. "I found that the Everglades had this incredible, spiritual beauty. And I felt this calling that I wanted to communicate to people the incredible beauty of our world — not just about the Everglades, but our world. I wanted to express its fragility and our responsibility to care for it, because as my son was going to school I was involved in teaching. I learned so much about the environment and the ecology of Florida that it wowed me," she says. "I was totally away from who I was before, and I could reinvent myself. So I started drawing and rendering animals." She began with pastels and eventually got into charcoal, the medium for which she is well known today.
It all began with a photograph. "I took a picture of a seagull, and in that image I saw what I wanted to communicate. I saw in its eyes that it was asking for something, warning me to stay away or asking me to be fed, I don't know. But it was standing there looking beautiful. Birds are fragile but have this powerful presence," she says.
"I saw how I wanted to draw it. I wanted it to be as big as a person. I wanted it to look at you on a one-to-one level. Powerful. I think black-and-white is very powerful. I use realism to suck people in and to portray their presences — I feel we have a spiritual connection to nature. I feel like we don't get out enough. When you go to the beach or you walk through the forest, there's this silence, and you realize this world is a gift."
Charcoal is a messy medium. Fifield works from top to bottom and right to left to avoid smudges. She uses photo references to get the scale and proportions perfect. And she doesn't spray the pieces with a fixative, which is often used on charcoal works to prevent smudging.
"I hope with my work that people learn to respect these beings," she says. It is this empathetic approach that is so jarring in her work. Each animal — whether a squirrel, alligator, or horse — seems to stare past the page at the viewer. Are you going to hurt me or help me?, her subjects seem to ask. These pieces are large — three to six feet wide.
Aline Kominsky-Crumb, the wife of provocative cartoonist Robert Crumb, presents "Hair Magic," a small show featuring drawings in colored pencil, pen, and glitter. The series portrays Kominksy-Crumb as a blond bombshell — a character of sorts inspired by sexy Miamians. She had gone to an Aventura beauty salon and asked to be made over as a blond. The result is this art project. An eight-minute video installation accompanies her vibrant pieces. The performance is wacky and a bit obnoxious — she strips down nude and runs around with a friend — but fun.
Johnny Laderer's "Fast Fade" includes four pieces and one striking large-scale digital rendering of a roadside locale with a gigantic pineapple. The rendering is a bit out of focus and evokes the loneliness only a true road warrior would know.
Kristen Thiele's "Smoke and Mirrors" features a series of oil paintings that examine old Hollywood flicks. Each piece illustrates the mystery and also the disillusionment surrounding Hollywood glamour during the 1920s and '30s. For instance, one painting depicts a man in a fedora smoking a cigarette, yet a thick cloud of smoke blankets his face, obscuring his identity. A sense of unattainable pleasure permeates each piece. A woman in a long light-blue dress, with her back to the viewer and her head down, presses her hands on a mantle. Is she devastated? Perhaps.